The Ragwitch – Garth Nix
Allen & Unwin, 2006
It is just a rag doll, hidden among the feathers and broken shells, but from the moment Julia picks it up she is possessed. Her brother Paul watches on in horror as her stolen body passes through fire into another world and in a moment of blind bravery he follows, stumbling into a kingdom where old magic rules the forests and stories of a terror from the north have been eroded by the passage of time into nothing more than a children’s nightmare. But the North-Queen who once ruled has returned as the Ragwitch to spread that nightmare once more, one from which she does not intend to let the kingdom ever wake. While Julia fights to exist inside the Ragwitch’s poisoned mind, Paul searches desperately for a way to set her free – but what if the only way to save the kingdom is to sacrifice his sister?
I had seen The Ragwitch around before but it was only when I was fortunate enough to meet Nix himself at a recent talk in the State Library of Queensland and heard him talking about his inspirations that I bumped it to the top of my list to see what it was like. First published in 1990, it is one of his earliest works and quite clearly based on the Narnian model, with children stumbling from our world into a magical land in dire peril, but Julia and Paul are quite a different set of siblings from the legendary Pevensies. There’s a darkness in Nix’s work that you won’t find in Narnia. Unlike Lev Grossman’s very adult The Magicians or Neil Gaiman’s deeply disturbing short story The Problem of Susan, however, this is still definitely a children’s book that celebrates the magic of a quest. With so many British and American children’s fantasies out there, I also appreciated the distinctively Australian references, from the Aboriginal midden in which the Ragwitch is discovered to the Water Lord’s great white sharks. This wasn’t a fast read for me – somehow, Nix never is – and it took me a while to invest in the story, but I liked it and hope one day he writes some more about the Patchwork King. That name is just too good not to use again.